PEARL THEVANAYAGAM
Pearl Thevanayagam came to England at the age of 21 to study English literature in 1976. She returned home in 1982 after the death of her father and embarked on a successful career in war reporting. In 2001, she was forced to claim political asylum in the UK, after the high profile deaths of a number of journalists in Sri Lanka. Born in Batticaloa but moved to Jaffna as an infant, Pearl was raised in a Christian household, influenced by her parents' interests in politics and art. Her first impressions of England were mixed. She lived half an hour from Bradford, then the closest place to find a taste of South Asia, but found it difficult to adjust to the cold and loneliness of life in the North. When she returned to Sri Lanka, her family relocated to Colombo, only to be forced back to Jaffna on a refugee ship after the 1983 riots. Her journalism career took her to leading imprints such as Daily News and Sunday Leader, where she wrote exposés about the deaths of Tamil civilians during the war. ‘I lived through the most interesting period of fighting,’ she says, ‘You know it was really fun. I must say it sets your adrenaline going. Journalism is not the same here. There’s nothing happening here. So, not that I want the war but [laughs] war reporting was very good, lots of travel, different people. There’s nothing like it. For me, it’s like I’ll always be a journalist.’ Having received threats for her investigative style, Pearl left journalism for a brief period to take up organic farming in Bandarawela with her American boyfriend. Her return to journalism was brief, as she was forced to leave under continued censorship and safety concerns. In the UK, she heads up the Exiled Journalists Network, an organisation which she co-founded, helping journalists from war-torn regions settle in the UK.

STONES IN THE RICE

Pearl Thevanayagam, 58, reflects on her humble beginnings in journalism before
she became an influential war reporter.

In her interview, she also talks about growing up in a political household…

‘I grew up in a political household where politics was the subject. Even my
mother, who was only educated up to grade 8, knew everything about politics.
In fact, my father took a picture of the ‘58 riots from the YMCA top floor…
I listened in on conversations with his friends so I knew all about the politicians
and who did what, satyagraha and Galle Face sittings. And he [father] was also
the right man. He was supporting Congress, Tamil Congress. He worked with
G.G. Ponnambalam, intensely.’

…her father’s experience with discrimination…

‘So I knew there was this discrimination and especially my father experienced it.
I mean he retired from a very good job all because they told him, ‘You want a
promotion? If you want to become Chief Inspector of Art, you must learn
Sinhala.’ My father said, ‘No, I can speak Latin, Tamil, English, and that’s
good enough for me.’’

…losing her house in the ‘83 riots…

‘So ‘82 I came home, ‘83 we moved, lost everything in six months’ time,
brand-new house, whatever we saved for generations, including paintings
and everything, were burnt right in front of our eyes…Mrs Perera who was
teaching us, Mrs Perera or somebody, she asked me am I a Tamil because I
didn’t wear this thing or long hair or anything. I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Go home quickly,’
she said. When I was going on the road, Ananda College and Nalanda College,
Royal College boys in white trousers, and some were in shorts, came with
sticks and I saw everywhere burning on Galle Road and High Level Road…
Another Kandyan Sinhalese came and said, ‘Look, we can’t keep you here.
There is an order that we can’t keep you here. You have to go.’ So we went
out on the road and came near my house. There was this man, he rode a
motorbike. He opened the petrol cap. Somebody was throwing paintings and
everything from there – and we had a lawn. He rode a motorbike, set it on fire
and jumped out, so everything burned quickly. So I’m pretending that I am
not living in this house, we are just watching because if you said you were
Tamil, end of story…’

…and her experience coming to England twice, first as a student in 1976, and then as an asylum seeker in 2001…

‘I came to England in ‘76, I was 21. I got the admission without telling my parents and then asked for the ticket. I didn’t sit the A-level exam. My father didn’t know [laughs]. Then, five and a half years later, I went home after my father died. I kind of didn’t like England, the weather, loneliness. And my father died and I thought, you know, ‘I’m not going to miss my mother either, what’s the point in staying here?’ England didn’t appeal to me because I lived in the north and it was very cold. There were hardly any Sri Lankans…So reluctantly I came here [laughs] in 2001 again and claimed political asylum. Within three days I got it because in the Google everything was there. So they didn’t doubt me.’